Shooting and Editing Photos Part 4: Finding Realism with HDR Editing

Sri Lanka Sunrise

The above photo is a 3 exposure HDR photograph put together in Photomatix and edited in Photoshop. The exposures were captured as described in Part 2, and the files were saved as described in Part 3. Maybe you’ll disagree, but to my eye the photo above looks completely real. For comparison’s sake here’s the original, unedited image:


Sri Lanka Unedited
Sri Lanka Unedited


Notice the stark differences? The dark areas are far better exposed in the edited photo. You can see detail in the coconuts and green in the grass to the left. The ocean water is more detailed and the sky is more vibrant. The edited photo shows what it was really like to stand on the beach in Sri Lanka and take this photograph. The unedited version is a pretty picture, but it just doesn’t quite convey the feel of the moment I experienced when I was there. Simply put, the unedited version looks less real to me than the edited image.


Avoiding the overdone HDR look

Run a google image search on overdone hdr and you’ll see what I mean: sometimes HDR gets a little out of control. The results are images that, in my opinion, look terrible. It’s easier to create a terrible looking image than one that looks realistic, which is probably why there are so many overdone HDR photos out there.

The best way I’ve found to avoid overdone HDR images is what I call the “walkaway method”. When I spend too much time editing one image, I start to lose my frame of reference for what looks real and what doesn’t. My solution is to save my work at regular intervals, go do something else for a while, then return later. When I return I usually have a far better gauge on what looks real and what doesn’t. Sometimes I’ll walk back to the computer and say what is THAT!? If that happens I have no problem deleting my work and starting again from scratch. Other times I’ll walk back and be pleasantly surprised.


Remove noise first

HDR gives photos pop by bringing out all the information from your exposures. Unfortunately noise is information too, and any noise present before you start HDRing things will be emphasized. You can stop this problem before it starts by reducing noise on each of your exposures individually. I use Topaz DeNoise which works great. Lightroom does a good job with noise reduction as well. The difference is subtle in the following images but it can make a difference. Click on each to get a better look:

Before noise reduction
Before applying noise reduction with Topaz DeNoise


After noise reduction
After noise reduction has been applied

Noise and sharpness are always a trade off – the more noise reduction applied, the less sharp your images will be. But don’t be afraid to use large amounts of noise reduction where necessary; at this stage of the editing process it’s better to work with images low in noise than images that are tack sharp.


Merging exposures with Photomatix

I use Photomatix to merge and tone map my image files regardless of whether I started with separate exposures or a single RAW file (as talked about in Part 3). Merging and tone mapping are two separate things. Here’s how I set things up for merging.

This is the first screen you’ll see after loading your photos into the program, and you’ll only see it if you started with a single RAW file. Photomatix does a good job of guessing your EV spacing, and I usually leave it alone:

Exposure settings for single RAWs
Exposure settings for single RAWs


This is next screen you’ll see, or the first screen if you started with a multi exposure HDR:

Photomatix merging options
Photomatix merging options

The only option I ever change is “Align source images” which comes in handy only if I’ve shot a multi exposure HDR by hand. When I do need to align the images I do it by matching features. Click OK and it’s time to tone map.


Tone mapping

Here’s the first chance we photographers get to really screw up our images. Get too crazy with your tone mapping, and you’ll have crazy looking images as a result. It’s all about subtlety if you’re going for a realistic look. There are some pretty good built in tone mapping settings – Smooth and B&W are particularly useful. Here are three that I’ve made and use a lot:

Crazy painterly

This one often looks fake (as it does here), but that’s okay for now. Here’s what it looks like:

Crazy Painterly
Crazy Painterly


Crazy Painterly
Crazy Painterly Settings (1 of 2)


Crazy Painterly
Crazy Painterly Settings (2 of 2)


Easy neutral

These settings are a good way to keep a photo looking realistic while bringing out the colors and details. This is a go-to for me.

Easy Neutral
Easy Neutral


Easy Neutral Settings
Easy Neutral Settings (1 of 2)


Easy Neutral Settings
Easy Neutral Settings (2 of 2)


Easy neutral 2

This is a variation of the previous settings. It’s a little brighter in the midtones which looks better for some photos. The only difference is Smoothing has gone from High to Max.

Easy Neutral 2
Easy Neutral 2


Easy Neutral 2 Settings
Easy Neutral 2 Settings (1 of 2)


Easy Neutral 2 Settings
Easy Neutral 2 Settings (2 of 2)


You don’t have to pick just one

I’ll usually tone map the photo a couple times. I’ll save one crazy painterly file then undo the tone mapping (Ctrl+Z). I’ll then save an easy neutral file and maybe a B&W file. You can combine them all in Photoshop in Part 5 of Shooting and Editing Photos.


If you liked this article, take a look at the others in this series:

Shooting and Editing Photos Part 1: Your Camera is Hungry
Part 2: Capturing High Dynamic Range (HDR) Images
Part 3: Editing Styles and Preparing Your Files
Part 5: A Comprehensive Photoshop Guide


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